Better prints at home

A clear and simple guide to getting the most from your desktop inkjet printer

Welcome to our 'How to Print' pages. At the Siskin Press, we offer printing at large sizes, and on specialist papers and media, not readily available to most photographers and artists. However, many people enjoy producing smaller prints at home on desktop inkjet printers. These machines print up to A3+ size and contain four to nine cartridges of dye- or pigment-based ink. Many photographers find that, with care, an affordable desktop printer is capable of producing excellent results.

On this and the following pages you will find advice on how to choose, use and maximise the potential of your desktop printer to produce pleasing prints to share with friends and family. It isn't intended as an instruction manual – basic familiarity with the workings of your printer is assumed – but rather, a resource for aggregated wisdom, such as it is. We hope you find it enjoyable and, above all, useful.

The basics


Which printer should I buy?

Does it have to be an Epson?

Epson is the first name on many people's lips when they think of inkjet printers, and the company has probably done more than any other to bring inkjet printing into the fine-art mainstream. However, Epson no longer enjoys the technological dominance it once held over its rivals, and desktop printers from all the leading manufacturers – Epson, Canon and HP – are capable of superb results. That said, Epson printers are still among the very best available, and have the greatest support from third-party printing software vendors – although some models have a reputation for clogging and for wasting ink when switching between glossy and matte media.


Picture book

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Inkjet printing belongs to a rich tradition of image-printing technologies, an astonishing number of which are lucidly set out and explained in Richard Benson's witty, deep-focus survey The Printed Picture (The Museum of Modern Art, 2008).


What is a picoliter?

A picoliter (or picolitre) is a unit of volume equal to a trillionth of a litre. Printer manufacturers use picoliters to define the droplet size supposedly produced by their machines. In theory, smaller droplets mean smaller dots and therefore greater image resolution, but in practice, a number of factors – such as dot gain, the amount each ink dot spreads on the paper – combine to determine ultimate print quality.


What is dye-sublimation printing?

Dye-sublimation printers use heated elements to transfer dye from cellophane ribbons onto specially coated paper or other materials. Unlike inkjet printing, which lays down discrete dots, dye sublimation is a continuous-tone process, and is sometimes used in inexpensive compact photo printers, where it can produce smooth, durable results. Dye-sublimation printers only print at a specific range of sizes and on a limited range of papers. Most serious printers prefer inkjet for its greater flexibility, control and colour gamut.

Your choice of printer depends entirely on the uses you have in mind for it. Just want to produce snapshots for the family album? A compact photo printer such as the Epson Picturemate or Canon Selphy should do the job. Want to make frameable A3 prints on quality paper that will last for years? A Canon Pixma Pro-10 or Epson Stylus R3000 may meet your needs.

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For every purpose, there is a profusion of models available, and it can be hard to choose between them, or even to understand the differences. Do your research and prioritise your needs. You might be tempted to buy the largest printer you can afford, but be warned, these machines can be real space hogs, so if you think you will only occasionally require larger prints, it may be wiser to get something more modest and employ a print studio for those special one-offs.

Tip: When assessing a printer's footprint, remember to allow for the various paper trays that open at the front and rear. These can greatly increase the amount of desk space required.

How do inkjet printers work?

Inkjet printers work by spraying tiny droplets of ink onto paper. As such, inkjet printing is not really a photographic process, but an ink on paper process, like the photogravure and collotype technologies that preceded it. The printer mixes dots of different coloured inks to produce a vast range of hues – the exact number depends on the printer and its inkset. (A good description of how inkjets actually work can be found at this page.)

A printer's resolution is defined as the number of ink dots it can lay down per linear inch (dots per inch, or dpi). Some printers are capable of greater vertical than horizontal resolution, which is why you will see figures such as 2400 × 1200 dpi (vertical × horizontal). However, these high numbers are merely internal screening resolutions; actual printing resolutions are usually much lower – up to 600 dpi for Canon/HP printers, or 720 dpi for Epson.

Many printers allow you to select different output resolutions. It pays to experiment with these, as lower settings may offer substantial speed advantages with negligible loss of print quality – especially if printing ordinary photographs onto matte paper (text and line art usually benefit from higher settings). A choice of unidirectional or bidirectional printing modes may also be offered, with unidirectional being generally higher quality, albeit slower.

Tip: Don't confuse printer resolution (dpi) with image resolution (expressed in pixels per inch, or ppi). The two things are not directly related (we'll deal with image resolution in a later section).

What quality can I expect?

That, of course, depends on which printer you buy. The better inkjet printers will give you results that, at first glance, are indistinguishable from the very best traditional colour prints. Only under a loupe should you see individual dots of ink, itself a fascinating insight into the limits of unaided human perception. Generally speaking, the more inks your printer has onboard, the smoother and more richly coloured you can expect your prints to look.

Less capable machines may reveal their dots more readily to the naked eye, and tonal gradations may not be so smooth, with evident banding or posterisation. However, by choosing a quality printer and following best practice – particularly with regard to colour management – you should achieve rich, sharp prints that are beyond the capabilities of most commercial photo labs, and on a far wider range of papers and surfaces.

What are the limitations?

bronzing
A print on semi-gloss paper showing bronzing and gloss differential.

Like all technologies, inkjet printing has its limits. The first is that you don't always get what you see on screen! In large part this 'problem' can be solved through careful colour management (see next page, Printing in colour), although neutral black-and-white printing can be elusive on all but the best machines. Metameric failure, which causes colours to shift under different kinds of light, is not the problem it once was, and recent printers with new-generation inksets have largely dealt to the twin evils of bronzing and gloss differential. However, these may both still occur when printing with pigment inks on glossy or semi-gloss papers, appearing as, respectively, a metallic sheen and an uneven surface glossiness when the print is viewed at an angle. Such effects, should they occur, may be somewhat mitigated by applying a coating of print varnish such as Premier Print Shield, or, failing that, by choosing a different combination of ink and paper.

What if I don't print every day?

Inkjet printers are happiest when in regular use, with fresh ink flowing through their lines and nozzles. Shutting your printer down for a long period will, at the very least, cause it to deep-clean when restarted, and may result in clogs. Clogs manifest themselves as banding or missing colours in a print. If you suspect you have a clog (check first that you haven't simply run out of ink!), try running a full cleaning cycle using your printer's software. N.B. It's generally best to do a nozzle check after every second or third cleaning cycle. The internet is full of advice about manually clearing clogs, but do be careful – print heads are delicate.

Tip: On Epson machines, some apparent clogs are not actually clogs, but rather air trapped in the nozzles. Try running a cleaning cycle or two, then leaving the machine overnight before printing again. Removing and replacing the ink cartridge may also force the air out.

If a print head becomes permanently clogged, it may need to be replaced. With some HP and Canon models this is a relatively simple procedure, but Epson print heads are not designed to be user-replaceable. The good news is that clogs are far less common than they once were. Modern print heads often have ink-repellent coatings, and some come with extra nozzles to cope with expected clogs. Many users report little or no clogging after months of inactivity (especially in areas of high humidity).

Tip: Certain printers (especially some HP and Canon models) can be left permanently on, allowing them to do regular nozzle maintenance. However, others need to be regularly switched off and on to prevent clogging. If you are a very infrequent printer, and you own a pigment-ink machine (see below), you might want to give your ink cartridges a gentle shake every few months to prevent the pigments settling.

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colour_sample Photograph © Peter Rees

Thinking about ink

No one who owns an inkjet printer will be surprised to learn that the corporate giant HP routinely makes more money from ink than any other product. Printer ink is one of the most expensive substances you can buy – at nearly 15 per 13ml cartridge, for example, Canon Pixma ink works out at approximately ten times the cost of a decent single-malt whisky – and as a hobbyist printer, ink will be by far your biggest expense.

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Worth its weight in gold?

Thankfully, most desktop printers these days are supplied with separate cartridges for each colour, so individual inks need only be replaced as and when they run out. Printers that take larger-capacity cartridges are more economical to run than those with smaller cartridges, but the most frustrating thing for many owners is the amount of ink used up in regular, noisy nozzle checks and cleaning cycles. As mentioned above, regular printing can reduce this wastage considerably.

Dye or pigment ink?

Ink for desktop printers comes in two flavours, dye-based and pigment-based. Both are capable of giving rich, vivid, and true-to-life colours. Dye-based inks are usually, though not exclusively, found in cheaper machines (often with a pigment-based black ink), and prints made with them may fade much more quickly than pigment-ink prints. Dye-based inks are also less waterproof and more prone to dot gain than pigment inks. If you plan on storing your prints in an album away from the light, then dye-based inks will serve you just fine. Otherwise, you may be better off with a pigment-ink machine, such as the Epson Stylus R1900.

What about gamut and permanence?

The internet is littered with impressive-looking 3D gamut plots comparing the various inksets from Epson, Canon and HP. While visually arresting, these graphics are largely meaningless, for a number reasons. First, printing gamut partly depends on the paper and its associated printer profile. Furthermore, gamut plots are generated from artificial colour targets that don't represent the colour range of a typical print. Most variations occur at the outer reaches of the gamut, in the most saturated colours, and, thankfully, we don't live in a super-saturated world. The boring truth is that, while each OEM inkset has its strengths and weaknesses, in practice, it is the similarities, rather than the differences, that are striking.

Comparisons of inkset permanence are an equally murky issue. Tests seem to suggest an hierarchy of HP ViveraCanon LuciaEpson UltraChrome, with Vivera the most light-fast, yet the truth may not be that simple – after all, print permanence is partly a function of the paper being printed on. In any case, longevity estimates should be taken with a grain of salt, as they often allow for a degree of fading that many people would find unacceptable.

Tip: Detailed information about print permanence can be found online at Wilhelm Imaging Research and Aardenburg Imaging & Archives.

One ink characteristic that is easily tested (with one's fingernail) is scratch resistance. Inkjet prints are delicate by nature, and small prints and cards may be damaged with even careful handling, so this factor may be more relevant to you than whether your prints will be enjoyed by generations to come in some indeterminate, possibly post-apocalyptic, future.

Should I use 'compatible' inks?

What is a CIS?

CIS stands for 'continuous ink system'. A CIS feeds ink to the printer from large bottles or reservoirs. Although this allows ink to be purchased in large, economical quantities, the trade-offs are complexity, size and, perhaps most importantly, the fact that only third-party inks are available in this form.

colour_sample
Photograph © Peter Rees

Many people save money by using so-called 'compatible' inks made by third-party manufacturers. While there are a small number of producers of high-quality compatible inks (Lyson, Cone, Inkrepublic.com, MIS, to name a few), in general, you get what you pay for in terms of colour and longevity.

Ink cartridges have small chips that report ink levels to the printer. These are not reset simply by refilling the cartridge, so third-party inks often come in reusable cartridges that reset themselves automatically each time they are filled or used with a CIS (see sidebar). Chip resetters are also available for many OEM (original equipment manufacturer) cartridges, along with syringes and other refilling essentials.

Tip: Third-party and OEM inks don't always mix. You may need to flush your printer with cleaning fluid before installing new inks.

One area where third-party inks are arguably better than OEM inks is monochrome printing. Specialist inksets, such as the Piezography inks made by Jon Cone in the US, consist of six or seven shades of black and grey that are installed in place of the original inks. These ultra-archival, carbon-based inks can produce phenomenally smooth tonal gradations even with relatively cheap printers, but, as the number of compatible machines dwindles, and OEM black and white improves, the future for these esoteric processes looks uncertain.

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What kind of paper should I print on?

Your paper choice is important, since it will affect the way your prints look, feel, and age. To make choosing more difficult, inkjet photo papers come in a huge variety of finishes, from high-gloss through satin and pearl, all the way to textured watercolour paper and canvas. Each has a special ink-receptive coating that prevents ink from being absorbed by the loose weave of paper fibres.

Tip: You can print on non-inkjet papers, but expect dull, washed-out colours and, if the paper is lightweight, rippling or curling of the sheet.

Printer manufacturers market ranges of papers formulated to work well with their own machines. Some of these papers are pretty good, but third-party papers, such as those made by Hahnemühle, Canson and Innova, are often better still, with higher archival values and more refined surfaces. To get good results from third-party papers, though, you need to print using the correct printer profiles. These may be available from the paper manufacturer's website, otherwise you can order a custom profile for your printer/paper combination from a specialist for a small fee. Alternatively, you can make your profiles yourself – a time-consuming and rather expensive, but rewarding, process (for more on profiles, see Printing in colour).

Glossy or matte?

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A selection of matte inkjet papers, including adaptations of classic watercolour and printmaking papers. 1. Hahnemühle Bamboo 2. Canson Rag Photographique 3. Hahnemühle Albrecht Dürer 4. Canson BFK Rives 5. Hahnemühle German Etching 6. Hahnemühle Museum Etching

What is 'letter size'?

People outside the US may be confused by the appearance of 'letter size' as the default paper size in their printer's software. Letter size is one of a number of paper sizes used almost exclusively in North America.

In Europe and most of the rest of the world, A sizes rule. All A sizes (A2, A3, A4 etc) have the same shape, and each can be folded in half to make the size below. Thus, A4 is exactly half the size of A3, which is in turn half of A2.

Photographs, however, have their own sizing scheme. The most common photo sizes are:
9 × 13 cm (3 ½ × 5 in), or 3R; 10 × 15 cm (4 ×  6 in), or 4R; and 20 × 25 cm (8 × 10 in), or 8R.
Each of these should be available to select in your printer's software.

Many consumer-grade photo papers are highly glossy, to emulate the papers used by commercial photo labs. In theory, glossy papers provide the richest colours and deepest blacks. In practice, however, these advantages can be outweighed by the paper sheen, which partially masks the image. Matte fine-art papers, such as Hahnemühle Photo Rag, Moab Entrada and Innova Smooth Cotton, are expensive and have a slightly lower gamut, but offer good viewing from any angle and a tactile quality that glossy papers can't touch.

Cotton or non-cotton?

Cotton papers (also known as rag, fibre-based or FB papers) are produced from cotton fibres and are traditionally considered superior to papers made from wood, which generally deteriorate over time due to acids in the wood pulp. However, high alpha cellulose papers made from acid-free wood pulp (the acidic lignin in the pulp having been removed) can nowadays claim comparable archival values and image quality, and are usually cheaper than their cotton equivalents.

What do paper weights mean?

colour_sample
Photograph © Peter Rees

In most countries, paper weights are expressed in grams per square metre (g/m2 or gsm). (In the US, they are expressed in pounds, and are derived from the weight of a specified ream.) Standard photocopy paper is around 80g/m2. Glossy photo papers are usually greater than 200g/m2. Fine-art papers are often greater than 300g/m2. The thickness, or caliper, of a paper increases with its weight, but the two things are not necessarily proportional, since paper weight is a measure of a paper's density, not its thickness.

Tip: Your printer will have a stated maximum paper thickness that it can handle. Printing on thicker papers may be possible, but you must choose an appropriate profile so that the printer's carriage is raised to prevent paper jams.

What are OBAs?

Some papers contain optical brightening agents, or OBAs. These are special dyes that make paper appear whiter, and in turn increase apparent intensity and saturation of prints. However, OBAs only work in the presence of UV light, so may have little effect indoors or in dim light. Also, the jury is out on whether OBA fading alters the appearance of prints over time.

What is baryta paper?

Baryta papers are coated with a barium-sulphate compound that provides a bright, stable surface without the use of OBAs. In the darkroom, baryta papers were valued for their quality and longevity, but were largely superseded by plasticky resin-coated (RC) papers. The latest baryta papers have elegant, semi-gloss surfaces perfect for both colour and black-and-white printing.

Anything else I should know?

Inkjet papers have delicate surfaces. All papers, but especially glossy ones, should be handled with cotton gloves to avoid leaving finger grease on the printing area. It's a good idea to brush the surface of each sheet with a soft brush (a clean make-up brush will do) before loading it, as this will help keep paper dust out of your printer's works.

Tip: If you're unsure which side of a matte sheet to print on (most inkjet photo papers are single-sided; double-sided paper will be clearly marked as such), lick a fingertip and carefully touch the paper near the edge. The printing side will feel slightly sticky to the touch.

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>> or next page: Printing in colour

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